12 December 2006

Rough and Tumble Theory: The Individuation Edition

In an act of great kindness, N.Pepperell over at Rough Theory has emailed me a a series of questions that tie together various themes I've been developing on this blog since I began writing here in May. I call this a great kindness as it spurs me to try to think through some things and articulate my intuitions more clearly. N.Pepperell writes,
I've been trying to backtrack an issue through your blog (if you see fifty thousand hits from me over the past couple of days, this is what I've been trying to mine the site to find - I've really enjoyed the back posts, by the way: beautiful formulations - it's always a real pleasure, reading your work...).

What I've been trying to tease out if the strategic purpose of a distinction you periodically make between your approach - which you characterise as making "ontological" claims about, e.g., the impossibility of totality, and other approaches, which you criticise for making similar claims, but only at the level of "epistemology". Your strategic intention would probably be clearer to me, if I were more familiar with the works to which you are replying. My guess - but this may simply be ill-informed - is that you are concerned to distinguish your approach from approaches that view totality just as being something that humans (with their limitations, etc.) could never *know* - whereas you are trying to assert that totality is something that could never *be*? But I may be completely missing the point - apologies if the question seems exceptionally obtuse...

My question - and I think this would still be relevant even if I've misunderstood your strategic intent - is: given that you wish to make ontological claims (I'm sympathetic to this desire), isn't it then necessary also then to move into an epistemological theory, in order to explain how it becomes possible for us to achieve a particular ontological insight - if that insight can itself be demonstrated to be historical in character (if the insight, in other words, has not always been available to humans cross-culturally)? In other words, questions of how we can make ontological assertions - of what I would tend to call our standpoint of critique - necessarily imply the need for an explicit epistemological theory, at least if we remain within a materialist (in the sense of secular) framework.

The tricky thing then becomes how one thinks this within a framework sympathetic to Enlightenment ideals - how we can relativise our insights historically, without the experience of vertigo that often follows from relativisation. I've had a few conversations back and forth with Kerim Friedman on this, relating to the possibility for cumulative knowledge- my working concepts involve trying to think about the ways in which exposure to particular historical experiences make certain things easier to think, cause certain concepts to be readier-to-hand. (Ironically, my recent volley into a Derrida discussion at rough theory seems to be pointing in a similar direction, which I wouldn't specifically have expected when we selected those readings...)

My instinct would be that this form of historicisation leaves open questions of truth - it doesn't automatically debunk a concept, just because we make a case that a concept leaps to mind more easily in a particular period. Recognising how we might find it more tempting to think in specific ways at specific times, though, can make it easier- at least, this would be the hope - to obtain a useful degree of working
scepticism that better positions us to think about the validity of our concepts and insights...

This may simply be an unworkable tangent on my part... Among other things, I find it difficult in particular to communicate the very abstract level of historical experience at which I expect such "priming" of perception and thought might take place - such that a number of different (and, at times, conflictual) categories of perception and thought can nevertheless be recognised as homologous due to their implicatedness in specific forms of social practice... In spite of these problems - and they may ultimately be insurmountable... - I keep circling around this issue, because I can't get past the problems historical specificity can cause for ontological claims - with the challenge of how we make ontological claims (and how we then adopt, for example, a particular critical standpoint in relation to matters of truth or goodness), while still not resorting to metaphyics...

At any rate, you may already have thought these things to death - I'm always very conscious of the breadth and depth of your background compared to mine. I was just struck by your periodic criticisms of others for engaging in claims about epistemology, rather than ontology - and, among other things, I suppose have used the email to write myself through to a sense that you might have been criticising epistemological theories that have a somewhat different "target" than the sorts of epistemological theory I tend to worry about in my own writings...

Sorry to pepper you with an essay. And all the best with the job search!
Let's see if I can make some sense. There's a lot here and I can't respond to it at all, but the short answer is that I'm not myself entirely sure where I'm going with the distinction I draw between ontology and epistemology with regard to the non-existence of the whole. In part I'm simply making a stab at a new beginning in philosophy and seeing where it leads, and quite honestly I sometimes find myself thinking it all a bit absurd. There are two distinct issues here: On the one hand, there's the issue of the distinction between ontology and epistemology, and my hostility towards epistemology. I feel better able to defend my animosity towards what I loosely refer to as "epistemological stances". On the other hand, there's the thesis that being is not One, that it does not form a whole or a totality. This I find far more difficult to think about, though I will say that much of this follows from my Lacanianism, as a consequence of my take on the real and the non-existence of the Other.

In a vague sort of way, I think three intuitions are at work in this impulse: First, I take it that the epistemological tradition which I mark as beginning roughly during the 18th century has today come to an impasse with various forms of skepticism or relativism. Unable to establish any determinate ground of knowledge, we're now in the position where knowledge is thought as construction and no claim to knowledge enjoys any more privilege than another. Knowledge has become sociologized, while nonetheless maintaining a distinction between being-as-it-is-in-itself and being-as-it-is-for-us. Second, despite the fact that this distinction is made and we are forever unable to know being as such but only being as it is in and through our distinctions, the fantasy of being-itself is nonetheless maintained. There is a being as such, but it is thought as forever out of reach. I take it that this is what sustains the thesis that all "knowledge" is on par as a sort of fiction or construction, as the idea of construction implicitly evokes the idea of the unreachable, unconstructed. Ideologically I see this discourse as allowing the theorist to maintain distance from all knowledge constructions by devaluing them, thereby maintaining an imaginary illusion of mastery. That is, it works as a sort of metalanguage. Third, I take it that the discourse of epistemology implicitly maintains a distinction between the knowing subject and the known object that treats the subject as outside the domain of being.

I take it that the sociologization of knowledge is based on the correct observation from sociology and anthropology that when we examine different cultural configurations, the categories defining the relationship of the agent to the world differ from culture to culture. This was a thesis that Hegel masterfully articulated in a variety of his writings, such as the Phenomenology, as well as his writings on history and the history of philosophy. You will notice that much of what I've written on in past months has to do with the problem of individuation in the history of philosophy. What I'm trying to get at by shifting these questions from epistemology (how do we represent the world) to ontology, is the thesis that there is no further object beyond our engagement with that object insofar as subject and object are simultaneously individuated through their interaction.

A good deal of what's lurking in my thought here is Hegel's discussion of Essence in the Science of Logic and force and understanding in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Hopefully I can clearly condense a good deal of difficult material to make these points. Without going into too much detail, in the second magnificent volume of Hegel's Science of Logic, Hegel writes that,
Essence that issues from being seems to confront it as an opposite; this immediate being is, in the first instance, the unessential.

But secondly, it is more than merely unessential being, it is essenceless being, it is illusory being [Schein].

Thirdly, this illusory being is not something external to or other than essence; on the contrary, it is essence's own illusory being. The showing of this illusory being within essence itself is reflection. (394)
The translation of "Schein" as illusory being is unfortunate. "Schein" can just as easily be translated as "appearance", and has connotations of what is "on the face of something" or "keeping up appearances". The point that Hegel is making is that a distinction has been drawn between how a thing appears or shows itself and what is in the true nature of a thing or its essence. That is, we come to encounter being as containing a true nature that accounts for its appearance. For instance, I no longer encounter my coffee as just the bundle of properties it presents to me such as its color, taste, scent, and so on, but now see these properties as reflecting a nature that makes this coffee what it is. There is thus a distinction between the "coffee-in-itself" and "coffee-for-us".

Difficulties begin to emerge when this relationship between essence and appearance are treated as external and opposed to one another, such that the essence of the thing is something held in reserve. We only ever relate to appearances, so how are we ever to form a relationship to essence or the internal nature of a being (note that Hegel uses the term "essence" in a very unique and unexpected way, that shouldn't be confused with abstract form)? The essence of the thing is thought of as its inner nature in distinction from its appearances, yet what is this inner nature? In an enigmatic and famous passage from The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel writes that,
The inner world is, for consciousness, still a pure beyond, because consciousness does not yet find itself in it. It is empty, for it is merely the nothingness of appearance, and positively the simple or unitary universal. This mode of the inner being [of Things] finds ready acceptance by those who say that the inner being of Things is unknowable; but another reason for this would have to be given. Certainly, we have no knowledge of this inner world as it is here in its immediacy; but not because Reason is too short-sighted or is limited, or however else one likes to call it... but because of the simple nature of the matter in hand, that is to say, because in the void nothing is known, or, expressed from the other side, just because this inner world is determined as the beyond of consciousness. (88)
When we draw the distinction between essence and appearance we also try to determine what belongs to the object as such and what is contributed by us (or language, or culture). Hegel's point seems to be that we quickly discover that we must subtract all predicates from the object of knowledge to get at the being-in-itself as it is unrelated to us, yet in doing so the object evaporates into nothing or becomes a void. The question of epistemology can be treated as the the question of how we get to the thing itself, while skepticism and relativism can be seen as positions arguing that the thing in itself is unreachable. It's notable that skepticism does not reject the idea that there is a thing in itself-- indeed, it is crucial to its position --but it does claim that we are forever unable to reach this thing in itself.

Hegel's strategy is to argue that 1) essence is relation. This is a part of the idiosyncracy of his concept of essence I mentioned. The second volume of the Science of Logic is a careful analysis of the various types of relation structuring being, and makes a case in which beings must be understood as networks of specific and embedded relations. And 2) that essence must appear (478). In short, Hegel makes the obvious point that essence is only encountered in and through appearance, and that there is no quality-less essence beyond appearance. I cannot go through all the steps of this argument, but in a representative passage, Hegel remarks that,
A thing has properties; they are, first, the determinate relations of the thing to another thing; property exists only as a mode of relationship between them and is therefore the external reflection and the side of the thing's positedness. But, secondly, this positedness is in itself; it maintains itself in the relation to the other and is, therefore, admittedly only a surface with which Existence is exposed to the becoming and alteration of being; but the property is not lost in this. A thing has the property of effecting this or that in another thing and of expressing itself in a peculiar manner in its relation to it. It demonstrates this property only under the condition that the other thing has a corresponding constitution, but at the same time the property is peculiar to the first thing and is its self-identical substrate; it is for this reason that this reflected quality is called property. In this the thing passes over into an externality in which, however, the property is preserved. Through its properties the thing becomes cause, and cause is this, that it preserves itself as effect. Here, however, the thing is so far only the quiescent thing of many properties and is not yet determined as actual cause; it is so far only the implicit reflection of its determinations, not yet itself the reflection which posits them.

The thing-in-itself is, therefore, as we have seen not merely thing-in-itself in such a manner that its properties are the positedness of an external reflection; on the contrary, they are its own determinations through which it enters into relationships in a determinate manner; it is not a substrate devoid of determinations and lying beyond its external Existence, but is present in its properties as ground, that is, it is identity-with-self in its positedness... (SL 487-488)
In the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel will discuss this relatedness of entities producing properties in terms of the "solicitation of force". Things "solicit" one another evoking properties in relation to one another. For Hegel the thing can never be thought in isolation from its relationship to other things, and moreover, while we may talk about entities containing potentials-- indeed, Hegel himself does so in the cited passages --we cannot speak of a thing in-itself that does not appear. The thing exhausts itself in appearing and appears in and through relation. For instance, in psychoanalysis there is not one thing, the unconscious, that is in-itself, and another thing, the symptoms/parapraxes, that are appearances. Rather, the two are on a mobius strip with one another and the symptom is evoked in relation to the Other and others. Lacan is very Hegelian in this regard.

So this brings me to a first point: There is a tendency in epistemological frames of thought to subtract the knowing subject from these basic principles, rather than seeing the subject as an element in these interrelationships. This creates the irresolvable problem of how it is possible to know the thing itself. However, everything changes once we recognize that the subject itself is caught up in these networks of relations, and it becomes possible to see knowledge as an ontological result of a process of individuation (here and here and here and here). To try to put the point a bit more clearly, knowledge must be seen as resulting from the milieu in which it is individuated, or its field of engagement. I take it that this responds to your remarks about material and historical conditions. If this is ontological rather than epistemological, then this is because there is no further being in-itself beyond these interactions and relations that would be a true object of knowledge. None of this is to suggest that I am a Hegelian or that I follow him in all the claims he makes. I do find, however, that the Doctrine of Essence in the Science of Logic, is a model of clear thinking (though not clear writing), and of great interest to anyone committed to relational ontology and fatigued by ineffectual epistemic critiques.

Consequently, my proposal is that rather than asking which is the right form of knowledge or claiming that there is no knowledge, we instead look at how knowledges are individuated and produced in a specific field of relations. This would also amount to a theory of learning rather than a theory of representing. Of course, this raises significant questions with regard to the Enlightenment project of critique and demystification that I have not yet worked through.

Fatigue is overtaking me and I find that I'm no closer to giving a persuasive account of just why I think it is important to advance the thesis that being is not One. The intuition lurking in the background seems to be the point that since the conditions of individuation are always specific and unique, and since there is no self-identical thing in-itself that would serve as a measure for ways of relating to beings, there is no one being or whole in which all beings are contained. Rather, we just have divergent topologies of networks of relations that perhaps converge at points but which do not form a totality or whole. If you go back to my very first posts in May you'll find some attempts to make formal arguments for this claim in relation to my discussions of the death of God.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elegant and beautiful - I don't have time to respond properly tonight (and, in any event, may need to displace my response to my blog, as comments are not a very wieldy format for a lengthy discussion). I just wanted to flag briefly that your response confirms that, although I'm friendly to the word "epistemology" in my writings than you have been, this seems to be a terminological issue - I'm trying to break out of the same dichotomy, trying to work out ways of thinking of the subject as the subject of its object - the comments you make on the Hegelian concept of the relationship of appearance and essence is something I have always felt was on the mark, as well. And your concern with how you can make sense, within whatever theoretical system you devise, of the ontological implications of Lacanian theory - this is an issue that extends well beyond a Lacanian framework: any of us who remain rationalists, at base, have to worry about this issue - it's been a major concern of mine, in relation to how to understand and defend specific forms of scientific knowledge (if not necessarily to defend the self-understanding that much mainstream science has of its own workings...).

My feeling, though, is that we needn't become too frightened of the false paths taken within the relativism-absolutist dichtomy: that we want to make sure we don't shy away from sociological or anthropological insights, just because so many bodies of theory have drawn unproductive (and, I think, conceptually self-contradictory) conclusions from these things...

But your post deserves more attention and thought than I can provide right now... I'll try to think through this in a more adequate (and still not likely, in any event, to be as adequate as you've already posed it) when I have more time.

December 12, 2006 11:48 PM  
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